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Superior Court judges seeking higher supplement

Benefield: Pay will be a factor when seats are open

Deborah Benefield

Deborah Benefield

JONESBORO — Clayton County Chief Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield told county commissioners this week the local salary supplement for the court’s judges needs to increase to attract qualified jurists to the bench.

The court is seeking legislation that would raise each judge’s annual local supplement by $18,000. Judges salaries are controlled by the Georgia General Assembly, so getting it changed involves a somewhat arduous process of two sets of readings, reviews and votes in the state’s House of Representatives and Senate.

But Benefield said the judges make less than their counterparts in other parts of the state. She said the salary will become an important issue sooner than commissioners think.

“Very shortly, there will probably be some judges leaving this bench and it will matter who you will attract to the bench,” Benefield said. “With all due respect, and this may sound like hyperbole, but we and law enforcement are what stands between calm and chaos. That’s what we do in those rooms every day.”

However, there are hurdles that must be cleared before the request can go before the legislature. Some members of the county’s legislative delegation have indicated that they would like to get the commission’s blessing before taking any action since it would be responsible for paying the increase.

The issue was expected to come up for a vote this week but commissioners tabled it during a pre-meeting work session because they had questions about the request, Chairman Jeff Turner told Benefield.

“We appreciate what you all do,” Turner said. “Don’t get that confused for a second, but at the same time, instead of us saying ‘No’ tonight, we’re saying we want to look at it, we want to review it and learn more about it.”

In May 2006, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law legislation raising the annual local supplement for Superior Court judges to $37,000. If the commission agrees to the judges new request, the Clayton County Legislative Delegation would be asked to introduce legislation that would raise the supplement to $55,000.

In total, the higher supplement would cost the county $220,000 each year, but Benefield said the judges salaries make up “less than one percent” of the county’s annual budget because the state pays most of it.

Benefield said the last increase before the 2006 raise was approved around 2001. She also pointed out that the judges work a heavy caseload. The Judicial Council of Georgia has been recommending the creation of a fifth Clayton County Superior Court position for at least five years.

“There are four of us on the Superior Court bench who do the work of five or six judges,” Benefield said. “I know you see the kinds of cases that we handle on TV all of the time. We have more murder cases than we can say grace over. We have multiple defendant armed robbery cases.

“We work from sun up until sun down, weekends if necessary, and we haven’t had a raise in the supplement in (almost) eight years,” she added.

There isn’t much time to draft the legislation, get it introduced, through committees and onto the floor of each chamber of the General Assembly before the end of the 2014 legislative session. The 40-day session is expected to reach its mid-way point Monday.

If the commission waits until its Feb. 18 meeting to approve the request, the timeline will be dangerously close to Legislative Day 30. That’s a crucial deadline because it’s also known as “Crossover Day,” referring to the fact that bills generally must have cleared one chamber to have a solid shot at making it out of legislature before the end of the session.

Since this is the second session of a two-year legislative term, any bills that don’t reach Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk this spring will die. The county would then have to start over again from scratch next year.